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Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Owen Wister and The Virginian

Image result for owen wister

I am delighted to report that a play I wrote almost twenty years ago, and which I thought was lost forever, has popped up on an internet archive. (

It’s the story of how Owen Wister came to write The Virginian, probably the most famous western novel in the canon. It was broadcast in August 2001. I’m not aware that the BBC have ever repeated it, and when I checked their radio archive a few years ago there was no sign of it. Then, last week, we had a visitor who was asking me about my interest in the West, and I mentioned this sole foray into drama (leaving aside the ongoing Sherlock Musical project,

After our visitor had departed, I decided to Google The Cowboy and the Tenderfoot and there it was, in a non-profit archive out of San Francisco.

The Internet Archive ( seems to have a zillion items from radio, TV, libraries (public and academic), images and footage of live gigs. It also, for some reason, has a bunch of radio plays, including mine.

I became interested in Wister in the early 1990s when I was teaching an undergrad course on the literature and history of the American West. I gravitated towards The Virginian because it was deemed by many academics to be the seminal western. I enjoyed the book immensely and delved into the author’s life. It was remarkable.

Born into a wealthy Philadelphia in 1860, Owen Wister was never cut out for the banking career his father had in mind. His mother, the daughter of Fanny Kemble (Fanny Kemble - Wikipedia), encouraged him in his love of music. As a young man he studied for two years at the Paris Conservatoire, and took lessons from Franz Liszt. Returning to the States, he went into the bank.

It was some kind of breakdown (they called it neurasthenia) that gave him a way out. The Wisters’ family friends, the Roosevelts, suggested that a vacation in Wyoming might aid his recovery – as it had  for their son Theodore, the future President.

So Wister took the train west, and in his letters we see, frame by frame, the graphic account of his arrival, by train, at the little town of Medicine Bow; then his meeting with his first cowboy, who had come to collect him. All of this would re-appear in the novel. When he was told he would first be spending the night on the  floor of the grocery store, he asked why they couldn’t go directly to the ranch where he was to recover his health. ‘Because it’s 157 miles away,’ was the answer.

Just about everything he witnessed during his brief stay at Medicine Bow, and on the long journey across Wyoming, as well as several incidents on the range, was recorded in his letters home; and just about everything re-appears in his great novel. Included, of course, is the famous scene at the card table when Trampas calls The Virginian a sonofabitch, and the southerner coolly replies, ‘When you call me that, smile!’

If you visit Medicine Bow, you’ll see that line commemorated everywhere you turn – especially in The Virginian Hotel, where they even have a copy of the book, open at that page, in a glass cabinet in the dining room. 

I quickly became fascinated with the ways in which Wister’s actual experiences informed his writing. The result – apart from my later visit to Wyoming and Medicine Bow - was this radio play. I hope you can take the time to enjoy it.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Chainsaw Phil is Alive and Well and Living in East Yorkshire

I’m often being asked, what happened to Chainsaw Phil, the guy who visited me in the Red House on the Niobrara when I was staying down there? (

Regular readers may remember that he’s the kind of guy who will stand on the hood of your Chevy Blazer without a by-your-leave in order to get a better look at a passing freight train:

The Chainsaw, scanning the horizon for freight trains, 2011

He’s also the kind of guy who’ll chop down any tree you don’t like the look of, help fix the plumbing, or hire a plane to fly over the ranch and upper reaches of the river. (

I never liked that tree, bang up against the back door
And he is due enormous credit for putting up the definitive, and excellent, guide to the Old Jules Trail ( -  the first such that actually gets you around the River Place, the Orchard Place and the site of the Well Incident before sundown and with your sanity intact.

I caught up with Phil at the weekend. I try to call on him (or get him up to our place) a couple of times a year at least. We drink beer, go over the many sound reasons why we ought to be running the world, and draw up lists of people who will be locked up (or worse) when we do. We also light fires, and investigate the deep recesses of his several garages and outbuildings. He keeps all manner of good things hidden away there.

His latest acquisition is a gem. It’s a 1933 Austin 12/4 Harley.

Ain't that a beaut?
Not satisfied with rolling it out from its lair and getting me to tug on the choke while he fired up the old lady, he decided we should go for a ride and visit – not his local, whose owner is on holiday, but the Middleton Arms at North Grimston, about 5 or 6 miles away, over the hills.
Showing off the new-fangled 'trafficator'
We set off at a stately 28 mph, and she was soon rattling along at 37 when, on top of the Wolds, with the light failing and the temperature hovering around 6 degrees (43 in old money), she resolutely refused to change gear.

So there we were, the pair of us, combined age well over 130, shivering and grunting as we pushed her back and forth across the road, praying that no farmers’ sons were out and about impressing their girlfriends at 90 mph (which is what the young bloods do in rural East Yorks on a Saturday evening).

We executed a laboured three-point turn, got her nose pointing downhill, gave her a shove, and hopped in (thanking God as we did so for running boards). Coasting at 15, 20 then 25 mph, the dear old thing finally consented to engage third gear and behave nicely.
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The pub. Kind of quaint, isn't it?

We got to the pub, sank a couple of quick ones, returned home and tucked her up in bed.

Good night, my dear.

Over a hearty dinner, (the lad can cook too) Chainsaw reminded me that we had yet to inspect his other recent purchase, a 1953 Austin Somerset.  

Unfortunately, she wasn't roadworthy this weekend
I admired it, but declined the offer of another motoring adventure. Suddenly, an evening by the fireside seemed far more appealing.

The Chainsaw makes a mean fire

Friday, 15 March 2019

A Creative Retreat in Scotland

We arrived in the Highlands in the most glorious weather. When you’re driving towards a remote cottage with no electricity in the middle of winter, it helps. 

If you wait long enough - or you're lucky - you will get moments like this

The first job, after we’ve checked that the water (it comes direct from the stream) hasn’t frozen up, is always to get the coal fire going. It’s so cheering to look up and see a smoking chimney.

An uplifting sight
This year there were no mice in residence, so we were very soon settled. Only one problem for me: when I opened my laptop (it runs from a small solar panel, via a car battery) I discovered that I hadn’t got the files I thought I had and was therefore unable to do the writing I had planned.

Well, it turned out to be a blessing. Over the last fifty years I have entertained (or bored) any number of people with stories about my time as a kid from a council estate (public housing, if you’re American) on a scholarship at a public (i.e., private and posh) school. I have written many and many an opening passage to a book on the subject, but all of them degenerated into a rant about privilege, disaffection and social displacement. Once I’d got over the shock of seeing a blank space where the transferred files ought to have been it seemed as if a door had opened up. So much so that I had to talk a walk up a mountain and think about it.
It's hard not to be contemplative when you are confronted with a view like this
Over the next weeks I wrote a thousand words a day about my experiences at boarding school. I didn’t rant, I didn’t beat my breast and threaten to bring down a plague of boils on the teachers and prefects who made life so unpleasant back then. Instead I created a fictional lead character, wrote about him in the third person, and tried to see things through his eyes. I developed a supporting cast of characters - good guys and bad - and considered all the many things – good and bad – that I might do to them over the course of 300 pages. Such fun, even to think about it! I wove in as many references as I could to the times they lived in, because I think they were momentous. Thinking about the period 1961-3, I was able to reference: the assassination of Kennedy; the coldest winter in 300 years; the beginning of the British satire boom and the disintegration of the Conservative government; the explosion of media activity that heralded the arrival of the Beatles; the Great Train Robbery, the Cuban Missile Crisis; the shock of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight; the thrilling exposures of the Profumo scandal (who had ever imagined that posh people were so lascivious?) and the startling impact of the first Doctor Who episode on BBC TV.

I don’t know what it’ll come to, but I am enjoying it. More than that, I feel relieved of a burden. I feel liberated. I have rarely written fiction – just two novels, a few stories and that’s about it – but I am warming to the idea.
There was a winter flowering cherry outside, struggling to bloom. We did a little pruning... and brought a few stems inside


Thursday, 14 February 2019

Always Wanted to Know What the View Would Be Like from the Top of a Grain Elevator

Another flashback to Between The Rockies and a Hard Place ( More when I get back from Scotland.

My usual perspective on the Great Plains - which was why I was so keen to get up that elevator 

The town looked like all the others, except that it had a brick-paved crossroads. I’d paid a courtesy call at the museum, got directions to the library, and after emailing home I’d wandered down to the railroad tracks and the giant concrete elevator. I knew that the Grain Corporation had been run by the same family for four generations, and that a fifth was learning the trade. They’d told me so at the library. As a corporate historian with two studies of five-generation family firms behind me, I certainly wanted to hear the story of the business – but more than that I saw my chance to achieve a long-cherished ambition. 

   At home in England I find it difficult to walk up to a total stranger, introduce myself, and tell them what’s on my mind. I wasn’t raised that way. It’s too direct. Not that my grandmother, who looked after us when I was young, had any other approach to suggest. Her favourite saying was, ‘Those who ask don’t get; those who don’t ask don’t want.’ Work that one out.

   In America, of course, the direct approach is the one most likely to succeed. My most spectacular success in that line was an occasion in Lincoln, Nebraska, when I needed to borrow a bike to get me 600 miles from one end of the state to the other. True, I had turned a tenuous family connection with William F. Cody into one of those airy ‘I’m related to Buffalo Bill’ pitches. But the point was, I had been direct, bold, and unafraid.  The bike-shop owner liked my story, loaned me a $400 machine without batting an eyelid, then got on with running his business. If there’s one thing Americans admire above everything, it’s enterprise. It was, after all, an American President who reminded the people that ‘The business of America is business’.

   Plucking up my courage, I headed towards the elevator, hopping across the puddles and the railroad tracks, and entering the dusty little office that overlooked the weighbridge. There were five or six guys sitting around in overalls wearing baseball caps and clasping cups of coffee in broad, weathered hands. They looked up when I entered, but said nothing. ‘I’m looking for the boss,’ I said. One of them raised a stubby finger and pointed to a tall, slim man who might have been in his sixties. 

   He didn’t need much encouragement. As soon as I mentioned the word ‘historian’ he was off. It wasn’t just the way the guys rolled their eyes, drained their cups and returned to their various posts that gave me the impression they’d heard this before. The story tripped off the boss’s tongue as if he’d had to learn it for a high-school presentation. Our town. Or, in this case, Our Elevator.

   By the time the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad came through this part of Kansas, the boss’s great-grandfather had already opened a feed-store and found himself trucking grain to and from a wooden elevator just a few yards from where we were sitting.  After a time the owner approached him, and said that since neither of them was making much money, why didn’t he buy the elevator?

   As the boss was telling me this, a huge truck had pulled up outside with a sighing of air-brakes, but he continued with his story as he waved the driver up to the mark, then started up the machinery to load it with milo, having first run a computer check on its moisture content. 

   The business knew good times in the early part of the twentieth century, but, like the entire agricultural sector – the single exception being tobacco, he believed – fell apart after the World War One. The Roaring Twenties may have been boom-time in urban America, but back on the farm they had a solid decade of getting used to the economic slowdown that was just around the corner for the rest of the country. In the Great Depression, the widespread drought and the cataclysmic dust storms that characterised the Dirty Thirties, things got even worse. To add to their particular woes, the old wooden elevator burned down. Then, during World War Two, the boss’s father, who’d taken over the helm, died suddenly. With most of the men-folk away, Grandma ran the operation. By the time the fighting was over they were $20,000 in the red. ‘Doesn’t sound much now,’ the boss remarked, ‘but at today’s values it’s around  $300,000.’ By hard work and good management they pulled through, and today they’re a thriving operation. The elevator under whose shadow we were sitting has a capacity  of 1.1 million bushels – that is, over 60,000,000 pounds, or 30,000 tons of golden grain. It’s a lot of cattle feed – and quite a few burger buns, for that matter. And it takes up one huge storage facility.

   The details were fascinating, but I had a sly little question to put to my host. ‘So,’ I asked, as the truck driver baled out of his cab and came inside for a drink, ‘how far is it to the top?’ It was an unnecessary piece of guile on my part, because the boss was already a jump ahead of me, leading me out of the door, across the loading bay, and turning to tell the guys he’d be back in a few minutes. Inside the elevator proper he ushered me into a wobbly metal cage, a wire-mesh cocoon, squeezed in beside me, and pressed the button. There was a sudden hum of electrical machinery and we were away – my first trip to the top of one of these cathedrals of the Plains. 

   The cage was clearly designed to take one slim man breathing shallowly, but my host pressed gently up against me, holding his breath and arching his back inwards as each successive concrete floor drifted past. ‘Used to be ropes, of course,’ he said, nodding towards the oiled cables snaking past us.

   On the top floor was a row of dusty windows, a smooth concrete floor, and the casings that covered the tops of the separate elevators that fed each of the concrete bins. ‘Just so long as you don’t get your milo mixed in with your maize,’ I shouted above the roar of fans and the shushing of grain as it poured in through the metal conduits. ‘Oh, we’re real careful about that,’ he said.

   I couldn’t wait to see the view, and I almost tripped on a piece of discarded cable as I made for the nearest window. It wasn’t what I’d hoped for, however: there was little to see out there but the grid-pattern lines of the town way below us, and the vast spread of prairie, mostly dun-coloured, reaching out to a distant, blurred horizon, where it merged into a grey sky. I’d been told it before, and now I was learning it for myself: there’s only one way to view the Plains, and that is on the ground, at sundown or sun-up. 



Thursday, 31 January 2019

Just Me and a Biker Gang, Camping out in the Wilds of Oklahoma

I'm taking off for a month's creative retreat in the northern wilderness (Scotland, that is). While I'm away, look out for a couple of extracts from my book Between The Rockies and a Hard Place ( While I'm away, I'll be writing about my life-long relationship with natural landscapes, my delight in travelling to remote places, my occasional need for solitude. In Oklahoma, when I was driving up (and down) the 100th meridian, I was reminded why I generally feel safer on my own than in company. 

After hundreds of miles of this kind of scenery, those bikers kind of livened things up for me

Boiling Springs, when I got there, turned out to be the central breeding-ground for the State of Oklahoma’s mosquito population. It was densely wooded, with fallen trees rotting at crazy angles in stagnant pools. Surprisingly though, the bugs seemed to have turned in early. Or perhaps they were waiting for the weather to warm up a bit: it had barely touched ninety during the day, after all.

The place had been constructed, or landscaped, or hewn out of virgin swamp, in the 1930s. It was a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps under the New Deal legislation that brought hope and self-respect to so many of those thrown out of work by the Depression. They even had a memorial to the CCC near the entrance, a marble thing erected in 1985 to commemorate the park’s fiftieth anniversary, and included on it was a relief portrait of the camp mascot, a German Shepherd named Mustard.  

What you want when you get to a place like this, late in the day, is one of two things.  Either to find that it’s totally deserted, in which case you may feel reasonably sure that you’re perfectly safe – that is, you’ve only your mortal dread of the dark to contend with; or that there’s a reasonable sprinkling of camper-vans or tents around you, in which case you may feel reasonably sure that you’re probably safe – always leaving aside the possibility that all those retirees sitting in rocking-chairs outside their aluminium-clad Airflows aren’t part of giant conspiracy to do away with you. Well, you wouldn’t laugh if you once spent a night in a city park in Nebraska to be told a few miles down the road next morning that, ‘Hey, they caught those sonsabitches at last, eh?’ What sonsabitches, I asked. ‘Oh, coupla high school kids on a killing spree. Been kidnapping and murdering lone campers across the Midwest these last ten days.’  

So, the last thing you want is to find that you’ve got one other person, or, even worse, one other group of people, for company. Imagine how I felt when I passed a bunch of six barrel-shaped, mean-looking guys lounging around a collection of monster bikes with low-slung saddles and convoluted displays of gleaming chrome. Some of them had receding hair tied back in pony-tails; others wore piratical bandannas; all of them had bare upper arms decorated with a blend of scar-tissue and tattoos, along with daunting amounts of muscle. Plus at least one crucifix. If there’s one thing that scares the living shit out of me, it’s psychos wearing crucifixes. I was once rushed out of a bar in Albuquerque when a biker with bandages round both wrists and a cross tattooed on his fore-arm asked me whether I’d accepted Jesus Christ as my personal saviour. I made two mistakes. One, I told him I was an atheist; two, I laughed. My friend, a paramedic with considerable experience among such people – he spent most Saturday nights scraping their victims off the sidewalks – hustled me out of there. Fast.

Now, I’m well aware that not every biker is a Hell’s Angel, and that not all of them make a habit of killing their old ladies and spit-roasting their offspring. I’ve seen the weekend supplement pictures of them cradling their little tattooed cherubs. Trouble is, do you believe what you see in the Sunday papers? I’m not paranoid, but I do have a healthy fear of the unknown. And, inasmuch as I only glimpsed this bunch of murdering cut-throats once – and inasmuch as most of them wore mirrored wrap-around shades – I was in no position to make a balanced judgement as to the likelihood of my getting out of the Oklahoma Panhandle alive.     

Trying to ignore what I’d seen, I chose a secluded patch of grass, open on three sides but with a stretch of water behind me. There was little likelihood of their launching an assault through three feet of black slime, surely. I put up my tent, then did a bit of exploring. What the place lacked was drinking water. There were the usual stand-pipes, but the supply hadn’t yet been turned on for the season. However, I still had a four-gallon container of spring water in the boot, and I had a couple of bottles-full on the front seat.

The shower-block, at least, was open, and the water ran hot – eventually. But the toilets – well, the toilets were a little unusual. Either they’d been deliberately left half-finished or they’d been deliberately half-dismantled. For the stalls, ‘the crappers’, as Americans graphically describe them, were contained by walls that came up to my waist. I looked around for signs that there might be builders at work – or maybe demolition men. But no: the three-and-a-half-feet of brickwork was finished off with a neat dash of cement. They were supposed to be that way. Anyone crapping on this site would have to have an exhibitionist tendency.   

Making quite certain that no one was around, I went to the nearest cubicle, opened the door – I mean the gate – and sat on the toilet seat. Kind of a test run, you might say. Even sitting down I soon saw that I would be entirely visible to anyone who happened to saunter in.

And what if it were the Hell’s Angels? What if I were there in there, minding my own business, and I heard their fairy foot-steps crunching over the gravel? It wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take.

The earth under the trees was nice and soft. With a stout stick I was able to gouge a neat hole, attend to my needs in peace, and bury the evidence under a little mound of black soil and leaf-mould. Job done.

I don’t know where the bikers spent the night. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to know.  If I could see them or hear them, yes, I would be able to keep track of them. But that would have meant spending the whole night awake, watching, listening, quaking. As it was, they were out of earshot and I was able to persuade myself that they’d gone into town, where they’d invade the first bar they came to, bust a few chairs over the proprietor’s head, and then impress the local females by crushing billiard-balls with their bare hands before trashing the whole place and riding back to camp with the best-looking girls slung across their petrol-tanks. They’d doubtless be gone some time. 

I did get to sleep, but not for long. I’d pegged the tent nice and tight, as usual, but it had managed to slacken off and once the wind got to work it flap-flapped all through the night. From somewhere out on the flatlands there was the mournful sound of freight trains whistling through.

I was up as soon as it got light, and had my tent packed in record time. For breakfast I  made do with a can of orange juice. Then, seeing no signs of life, I headed for the shower-block. And there, enthroned on one of the toilets and humming a cheery tune, was one of the bikers. No bandanna, no mirrored shades, ginger hair all askew, leather trousers round his ankles, his eyes glistening perceptibly as a loud ker-splosh! echoed off the white-washed walls. 

‘Real pretty day!’ he called across as I went to the farthest wash-basin and put the plug in.

‘Yeah, right.’ No way was I going to argue the point. 

‘Sleep all right with all that wind?’ I could hear him yanking a few yards of paper off the roll and screwing it in a ball.

‘Oh yeah – fine.  Thanks.’ I decided against mentioning those wakeful spells as I imagined what he and his cronies might do if they spotted me.

I risked a glance in his direction and saw him grin at me as he hitched up his trousers. ‘Yeah, it sure blew pretty hard.’ He walked all the way across to the basin beside me, and washed his hands.  It seemed that he took an awful long time over it, and washed with unnecessary vigour. Perhaps last night’s blood was still there under his fingernails. As I brushed my teeth I watched him rub the soap up his wrists and work it into the thick hair before rinsing off - ever so thoroughly.

After he’d dried – slowly, deliberately, with the same painstaking attention to detail – he held out his hand. His handshake was firm, but his palm was surprisingly soft. His name was Dave, he told me. He wanted to know what I was doing. I synopsised my month-long trip into about eight words. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. But Dave seemed surprisingly meek and mild. He said my trip sounded real neat. He and his buddies were taking a little jaunt too: Houston to Seattle and back via Minneapolis. He’d been in college there, twenty-some years ago.  

I wondered what on earth these guys might have studied, and he clearly read my thoughts.

‘Medicine,’ he said. ‘We were all medics together. Then we went our separate ways. My buddies are all surgeons,’ he said. ‘I’m the odd man out: I’m in obstetrics.’ With that he wished me luck and took off for Oregon.